Brett Storys The Hottest August is spatially environmentally oriented filmmaking at its best. The images of the sky above New York's roofs are poetic, but it is what hangs heavy in the air that clings: the possibility that the Earth will finally settle accounts with the policies of capitalism and unleash the consequences. The director takes us on a journey – as light and humorous as it is full of warnings – through New York's five boroughs, where residents are interviewed about changes in the city and thoughts about the future. Scott has an ear for anecdotes and is charmed by human "tics", and she chats with residents from all walks of life: skaters in municipal housing, the twentieth-century jazz-saved preachers, a fitness instructor and a retired police officer.
Racism is always haunting in the background, even before the images from the white-power attack in Charlottesville (August 12, 2017) shows up via the news broadcast that scrolls and goes on a TV screen inside a laundry. From a bar stool, a man says he prefers to call it "resentment" over racism. In a working-class neighborhood where Irish and Italian residents were previously a majority, a middle-aged couple sits outside their house. They are friendly, but the turmoil bubbles up and appears when they tell of the experience that the new immigrants have made the district more unsafe, and believes that "everyone wants a job, but nobody wants to work"
The financial uncertainty and anxiety also creep into the interviews. Some Manhattan residents seem to be thriving under such conditions: A risk analyst conveys pure happiness as he poetically rubs and polishes on the strange arithmetic of buying property for less than it is worth. For others, finding their way and place in the world is a struggle: On the beach, we meet a young woman who recently gave the closing speech during the closing ceremony at the college where she studied. While building sand castles, she says she earns a living thanks to the dog hotel in her home, which she started for fun while attending university. She does not find a job that suits her area of expertise, as environmental protection is not in focus. "This is about politics," she adds. It is almost a side comment, but the trumpism embraces widely and spreads, and it appears almost as even more insidious and glaring when contrasted with beach life, which would normally give the feeling of carefree days.
A charged word
"Normal" is a loaded word in The Hottest August, as there are many indications that the time we live in is anything but normal. The director quotes the author Zadie Smith and reflects on the fact that grieving people tend to use euphemisms, and that we therefore prefer to call climate change "the new normal", for fear of what the use of the word "abnormal" would entail. We let ourselves be reassured by cool April rain and that the seasons are still changing. "At least August is warm, as usual," we say as if everything is as it should be. And this despite the fact that August 2017 was, as the title says, one of New York's hottest ever.
Two women discuss the consequences of Hurricane Sandy, which was unparalleled in its extreme extent and almost completely damaged their homes. But they are reluctant to admit that the hurricane was a sign that nature's cycle of centennial storms is out of balance. This underlying unrest constantly emerges throughout the film: Irregularities and disasters are like alarm bells warning of dark future prospects. But such an interpretation will feed on a fear many New Yorkers will not be able to fully embrace.
Even such an iconic city as New York is fleeting and fragile when set
in the face of the violent forces of nature.
Shocking events do indeed awaken some from the paralyzed hibernation: A woman who was out on the town with her baby witnessed a woman in a hijab being verbally assaulted by a drunk fanatic on the street. The fact that she just stood there and watched the harassment unfold made her start courses to become better able to take her responsibilities as a citizen. The next time she witnesses such aggression, she will intervene. And a young woman on the beach says she does not want children because she fears that global warming will mean that the generations that come after us will not have a good, full life – a position that is quite common in her group of friends.
The wind grabs an umbrella and throws it across the beach. The scene is slapstick comic, but it is also another picture of the chaos that awaits: Not even our tools and furnished homes are fit to withstand an increasingly unpredictable weather.
The female narrator's voice adds further elegance to this film, which consistently gives us the feeling that the images we see are images of a world that will soon be gone.
There are many cinematic city portraits of New York. But instead of just being a tribute to New York and its vibrant, multifaceted reality (which is admittedly very charming), hits The Hottest August – indirect, but insistent – the reality in all cities. Even such an iconic city as New York – the Big Apple, which has been chewed on by one filmmaker after another – is fleeting and fragile when confronted with the violent forces of nature. Forces that our civilization cannot deny and maintain at arm's length over time.
The Hottest August is a living time image. It says nothing about what steps we should take to avoid the climate apocalypse, but it is powerful in its quiet predilection for moods and anecdotes rather than forefinger and information. The film acknowledges that there is no simple and easy answer: The Earth has finally revealed our bluff, after humanity's long and complacent disrespect for the damage the heartbreaking capitalism that considers growth the only valuable goal inflicts on the planet.
Brett Story asks us to wake up, and there is no doubt that something is urgent.
The film was shown on Dokufest in Kosovo.
Translated by Vibeke Harper